Smile ‘em In and Smile ‘em Out

I was reminded the other day of a story of an elderly woman who would stand at the entrance to her church on Sunday mornings before and after the worship service. She was there every single week simply smiling at everyone who entered. When the pastor asked her what she was doing, she said, “I’m smiling them in and smiling them out. Doesn’t everybody need that?”

This story has stuck with me is because it illustrates one of the universal principles for determining whether anyone is going to be a good match for a job. The people who work most productively with others are those seek to work collaboratively. Therefore, it is essential that you screen for this attribute during the selection process, regardless of the position.

The sentiment, “Don’t hire people and teach them to smile. Hire People who smile,” has been attributed to a number of people. But regardless who first said it, embracing this principle is critical to ensuring productive, long-term hires, especially in customer care positions.

One airline with which I am familiar, used to use to an interesting strategy for screening flight attendants. They would gather groups of applicants into a circle. Then they would say, “Before we get started, let’s have everyone get up a take a minute to tell us about yourself. You can talk about anything you would like to share.”

This, of course, would unsettle some of the applicants. Few people like to be put on the spot like that. But what the applicants didn’t know was that the evaluators in the room weren’t watching the presentations. They were watching the audience. Predictably, some applicants would smile, pay attention and encourage those who were speaking. Others would glance at their smart phones, check their appearance, or generally grow bored with the process.

Which applicants would you want as flight attendants serving your customers? The airline felt the same way. Those with the “others-focused” demeanor were the ones to be hired. How can you adapt this strategy for use in your screening process?

Applicants can have all the qualifications in the world. But if they are not others-focused, they can be an energy drain on those around them and the firm in general. Look around. What can you do in your environment to promote this practice?

Parents – Let them Go!

A recent article in The Wall Street Journal explained the phenomenon of “Bring Your Parents to Work Day,” in which employees’ parents spend the day wandering around the office watching their offspring and colleagues write memos, answer e-mails and the other tasks required of their jobs. The enthusiasm for this, of course, is not shared by everyone. “It’s almost like we’re in a zoo and we’re the animals,” says one employee.

Our neighbor’s only child graduated from engineering school two years ago and took a job on the other side of the country. For the past two years, his mother has been traveling once per month to visit with him for a week at a time. She claims he’s always delighted to see her. Hmmmm…

Much has been made over the past decade about parents showing up to their kids’ job interviews and calling bosses when their children express unhappiness or frustration about the job. Most of this conversation has centered on why these “kids” won’t grow up. But let’s face it – Parents are complicit in, if not largely responsible for, this conundrum.

When I entered college in the seventies, my parents dropped me off and said, “See you at Thanksgiving.” My wife’s brother dropped her off and said, “Have a nice life.” Now, I’m not suggesting we return to an era of “sink or swim.” But can’t we find a middle ground?

The employers I speak with every week express frustration with their emerging employees’ inability or unwillingness to work independently and reason through the daily decisions learned through trial and error. While menu-driven technology has played a role in this phenomenon, many of these young people have not been compelled to develop problem-solving skills until they reach full-time employment. Sure, they have the content knowledge and understand what work outcomes are supposed to look like. But that’s very different from pulling the trigger on a decision and living with the consequences.

So, what’s my advice for hiring these individuals?

  • Do a better job of selection. Interviews and personality assessments can offer some good insights into how an employee might relate to others on the job. But there is nothing like placing applicants in a simulated work environment for a few hours to see how well they think and perform. More work for you? Yes. But hey, you’re making a decision worth tens of thousands of dollars. Invest the time. You may still hire those who struggle in the simulation, but at least you’ll know where their strengths and limitations are up front.
  • Provide them with a pre-start orientation. Rather than drowning them in minutiae during the first couple of days, send them a ten-minute video with lots of the little details they will need to know. “This is where we enter the building. This is where we park. This is how our ID badges work. Here are the basics on smart phone etiquette. This is where we eat lunch. This is how we generally hold meetings.” You get the idea. It doesn’t have to be highly produced. Ask a couple of young employees to create it in a style that would engage them.
  • Teach them the top fifteen. As I mentioned in a recent post, there are about fifteen decisions that most people make in their jobs on a regular basis. Teaching new hires these protocols from the very first day will ease the burden on managers and help them come up to speed in a more timely way.

No little blog-post like this is going to alter the ingrained habits of over-protective parents. Eventually, all of these “kids” grow up and learn the decision-making skills essential to success. But parents, let’s all step out of their way so they’ll be compelled to develop these skills before they’re 30.

I Don’t Care What You Know Until . . .

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I don’t care what you know. I care about how you think. That’s been my guiding philosophy for hiring over the past 20 years. It didn’t come at first. But time has a way of showing how to adjust your methods. It’s easy to be impressed by the resume, the experience, the rapport or the way someone answers questions. But that’s all words. How about actions? When the heat’s on, what they’ve said may not match what they do. So how do you elicit some insights on their approaches to problem solving and decision making? Compare these steps to what you do now and see if you’re on the same page.

Make a list of the typical problems/decisions to be resolved in this position. Then choose two or three that can be replicated during the screening process. Examples might include, answering in-bound customer calls, negotiating with a vendor, and organizing a stockroom.

Create a representative experience. This means immersing them in the actual environment. Put them on the phone, have them role play with a “vendor,” or put them in the stockroom. To use the examples above.

Test for the desired outcome. Ask a few people unfamiliar with these tasks to complete them and see what results you get. If you obtain the information/insights you’re seeking, then add these exercises to the selection process. If not, you’ll need to rethink the exercise until you get it right.

Allot the time and resources. This kind of selection takes more time. That said, you’re also making a substantial decision on a person you hope will perform well for years. Isn’t that worth the investment?

Inform the applicants before the process begins. The best ones will appreciate the care you’re taking. Most will simply accept it as a part of the process. A percentage will fail to show. That’s okay. You didn’t want to hire those people anyway.

Implement the process and tweak for improvement. As you observe applicants’ performances, you may discover that their approaches to solving problems and making decisions is different that yours. In many cases, this is something to be celebrated. More than one organization has been derailed by group-think. You may also find that some applicants have other strengths, but decision making is not one of them. That may be acceptable provided you have the time and resources to help them hone their approach.

Compare successful applicant performance with their performance on the job. Once this process has been in place for a while, circle back with supervisors to see how well these new hires solve the problems and make the decisions they were screened for. Make adjustments in the selection process based on these observations.

Assessing for problem solving and decision making should always trump the desire for credentials and experience. After all, if you don’t know how they think on the way in the door, what might happen when you have to live with them?